The writing on the wall – old school graffiti in Kensington and Chelsea

This picture is one of my favourites from Roger Perry and George Melly’s 1976 book on London graffiti the title of which I have borrowed for this post.

The picture dates from a time before graffiti was a branch of the visual arts. The explosion of spray painting which saw elaborate tagging on every accessible wall and which would give us street murals and fantastic decorations on empty buildings had not yet happened. Graffiti was still a clandestine activity. And some people just left messages. Political messages, campaigning messages and even personal messages like this one:

You can’t help wondering even now when it probably no longer matters whether the writer’s love for Linda was unrequited.

Some graffiti then as now was purely political.

The phrase “rent revolt” epitomises community activism in many parts of London in the 70s. North Kensington, the home of Rachman and others was particularly radical.

This is Cambridge Gardens in the period when the Westway was being constructed. “May Day is worker’s day” reads the message followed by “The rest is whose?” It’s almost like an exam question. Discuss. The best of this kind of graffiti raises questions, some of them political some of them philosophical, some enigmatic. Like this one, also from Cambridge Gardens:

It’s a kind of social critique. One of the famous pieces of graffiti which you can see over several pages in the Melly book was located on either side of the tube line between Westbourne Park and Ladbroke Grove where it could be read by passengers. The epic message described the repetitive life of the commuter “same thing day after day”, “work-train-sleep” and concluded with the warning “one in ten go mad, one in five cracks up”.

Graffiti attempts to enter the reader’s head like a tune you can’t stop humming. After the politics and the warnings about the dangers of modern life you can also turn to the consolations of literature with this quotation:

William Blake was a particular favourite of the graffiti artists. This one  in Powis Square “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” was not uncommon. I can also remember seeing another at the entrance to Euston Square station: “The tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction”. It could also be seen in Basing Street W11. We now have a phrase for the way these messages spread: going viral. Here is a more recent example in Ladbroke Grove:

This one was seen all over London in the 90s. Iain Sinclair refers to it in Lights out for the Territory (page 199 if you want to see for yourself) and wonders if it has some kind of alchemical significance. It’s a little like Christian Rosencrantz, a name from esoteric history. Here it is again in a truncated form on Scrubs Lane (perhaps there was only room for the name?)

No-one seems to be sure what it actually means. There are suggestions it was publicity for a band, but it’s also said that the band came after the messages. It’s also reminiscent of another repeated message from the 70s: “George Davis is innocent”. Does anyone remember that one? If you don’t the quick version is that George Davis was a man who was wrongly convicted of robbery and subsequently freed, although he later served prison sentences for two other robberies. Those convictions were not disputed in graffiti.

Londoners have been expressing themselves in graffiti for centuries. The massages serve every kind of purpose but the best ones are the one which make you stop for a moment and think “what?” Why on earth would someone take the time and trouble to write that? Here is my personal Kensington and Chelsea favourite and this one comes from Chelsea on a wall in the soon to be demolished and intriguingly named Raasay Street. Perhaps it’s the size of the letters and their insistent tone but I find it vaguely threatening.

Perhaps it was left by a demented grocer.

If you have any favourites you’d like to share send them to me and I’ll do a follow-up post one of these days. I scoured the photo survey for images of graffiti. Some examples were frustratingly truncated. Some legendary examples such as the slogan Vietgrove were not there when our photographer passed by.

Thanks to Sue Snyder for the Christian Goldman photos. The Writing on the Wall is now unfortunately out of print but well worth it if you can  find a copy.

19 responses to “The writing on the wall – old school graffiti in Kensington and Chelsea

  • Michael Gall

    Just when I thought that you could not do any better
    David you have outdone yourself today, but where is my 1973 one done on the cable end wall at the junction of Cranley Gardens and Cranley Mews…is it not in your collection.

    To my memory it said something stupid like
    Ha ha… fun times back the seventies.

    • Dave Walker

      I do remember that graffiti in Cranley Mews.I went to have a look and although it has gone now my son also remembers it. But do you remember that Cranley Gadrdens/Mews was also the location of the Range Rover (and subsequently the bike) with notices on it giving details of the owner’s grievance against the Smiths Charities Estate? The car showed no sign of having been moved in years but it was up to date on road tax etc. The bike which replaced it as the owner presumably downsized was parked at the end of Cranley Mews. It’s gone now – maybe the owner has died. It was another form of street art.
      Anyone remember it?

  • Mike Paterson

    Super post, thanks. Highbrow graffiti. If the one that you feature about halfway down were done today, it would, of course, appear as: DO WHAT YOUR TOLD.

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  • Tamara Cartwright-Loebl

    I well remember both the Range Rover and the bike, you have to admire the persistence whilst also feeling sad that the chap couldn’t move on.
    For graffiti, you’ve missed “Bill Stickers is Innocent” which was everywhere, including on the legs of the Hammersmith flyover,which also boasted a ‘Cats Like Plain Crisps’ for a very long time, though the last example of that, I believe, was on a rendered panel on the brick wall that formed the back of the Old St Mary Abbots hospital, on the Cornwall Gardens Walk side. I used to move the ivy for a nostalgic look several times a year til sadly someone painted over it a couple of years back. I wonder if they would have left it had they known it had survived over 40 years already. I remember asking my mum about the meaning when I was about 6 or 7 but since she hadn’t heard of the definition of cats as “really cool people” she was unable to answer so I’m still in the dark now.
    Most people these days only stay round here for a handful of years at most but there are tonnes of tiny survivals that they probably never give a thought to, like the footprints in the cement in Launceston Place, immortalising a dog that must be dead 35 years at least and the teeny piece of garden wall from the cottage that used to be where the shops are where Canning Place runs into Victoria Grove. The cottage went in 1880 but the wall must be many years older.

  • Joe McNally (@GaspardWinckler)

    There’s still a legible palimpsest of “IT’S ONLY ROCK AND ROLL” on the south-eastern wall of Lord’s, near the roundabout.

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  • Nick Jenkins

    My comment refers to a piece of grafitti, not in London, but Oldham,my home town. However, it is in the same vain as the London grafitti. It was done during the Queens silver jubilee in 1977. It read “The great only appear great because were weak and on our knees, let us rise – roll on the red republic” the first part being a famous political quote. I wish I had a photo. Sadly, all that remains is a very faded “Republic”. I’ve always been fascinated by 70’s grafitti. Who did it? what did they look like? what were they wearing? are they still alive? etc etc. There’s one that also fascinates me near to where I live. It’s just “Sex Pistols” and because it’s on a gable end down a back alley, it’s been totally protected from the elements. I’m 43 and it’s been there as long as I can remember. I would predict no earlier than 1976 and no later than 1980. Fascinating stuff – a snapshot of an era long gone.

  • Joe rush

    At the end of St Annes Rd…where you turn a sharp left…”SPEED KILLS”….under the flyover of westway and portobello rd… “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bycicle”.. To which someone had written..”on your bike love”…

  • Tony Fellowes

    Although not a native of North Kensington, I used to hang around there a lot in the late ’70s when at school in Ducane Road, East Acton, as most of my friends lived in the area between Wood Lane/Scrubs Lane and Ladbroke Grove.
    I too remember the ‘Speed Kills’ graffiti and another I have not heard mentioned which used to be on my walk to my Saturday part-time job in Paddington from Ladbroke Grove and would’ve been in the Talbot Road area, and appealed to my fledgling biker interest and was simply ‘I took my Norton and rode it into taan mate’. I used to enjoy the phonetic spelling of ‘town’ and the quaint reliance on a British steed as subject matter as most of my mates were getting into (and falling off of) Japanese two strokes at the time.
    The area certainly had a different feel to it then

  • Jason Cortez

    The William Blake quotes and the ‘work, buy, consume, die ‘ one were done a of group of ultra- left situationist inspired called King Mob in the early seventies.

  • Tom Lloyd

    Any one have a photo of ‘Dr Alimantado is God’ (Portobello late 70s – early 80s)

  • hennessy60

    Sign up the Banshees, and a quirky one from many years ago, Sheepskin Sally of the Loft, outside QPR’s ground.

  • Susanna Twomey

    Don’t forget the ‘Stuff the jubilee ‘ graffiti written right across the Ladbroke Grove tube bridge! 1977 – great year

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